ouzu bay
Courtesy of Ouzu Bay
Food & Drink

Houston’s Best Restaurant Openings of 2019

Houston is America’s restaurant boomtown. What started as a slow simmering of greatness has come to a full blown boiling point these last few years, and the trend of gastronomic hotness only continued in 2019. This year’s freshman class of restaurants is a mashup of familiar faces and out-of-towners, with a madly delicious dining concept that’ll take you to Madrid, a hot new food hall where the focus is on the chefs, a playful BBQ pop-up turned brick-and-mortar spot that was totally worth the wait, a powerhouse steakhouse catering to the baller type, and a boatload of seafood concepts that manage to standout in this meat-loving city.

Here are the Houston restaurants you’ll want to be eating at, into 2020 and beyond.

MAD
Julie Soefer | MAD

MAD 

River Oaks District
Haute, mad, and inspired taste of Madrid

From partners Ignacio Torras and Chef Luis Roger -- of the insanely good Spanish fine dining spot BCN Taste + Tradition -- this dining experience moves from Barcelona to Madrid, and it does so in a way that is equal parts genius and insane. This is a place where gelled Ibérico broth becomes the noodles for a mac ‘n cheese, and where you can slice open a tomato only to realize it’s not really a tomato but a gelatinous veil for parmesan mousse and pesto over pumpernickel crumble. It’s not all avant garde, though; you’ll also find less “out-there” stuff like wood-roasted rice, suckling pig, Spanish octopus, and Wagyu bone-in ribeye. MAD remains one of the hottest tickets in town since opening this summer, so score a reservation for a whimsical dinner (or brunch) in what feels like a living Picasso painting, or swing by later at night to experience its top notch gin collection.

1751 Sea and Bar

Heights
Skillful seafood, high-end gin, and caviar service

With its springtime debut, this seafood- and gin-fueled spot brought in ace chef J.D. Woodward (Underbelly, Rainbow Lodge, Southern Goods) to helm the kitchen. That kind of talent means you’ll find a menu of transcendent surprises -- stuff like uni pasta, smoked, cured, and preserved seafood charcuterie, and tom yum hot pot teeming with all kinds of high-end shellfish.
With the restaurant’s name being a nod to the Gin Act of 1751, it’s no surprise that gin and tonics, mules, and spot-on martinis are also a part of the good times.

Blood Bros. BBQ

Bellaire
New school BBQ flips the script on brisket
Right at the turn of 2018, the Blood Bros. took set Houston’s BBQ scene ablaze when their incredibly popular pop-up went brick-and-mortar. Fast forward nearly a year, and the fire’s still burning. Here, Chinese- and Vietnamese-American “blood brothers” Robin and Terry Wong and Quy Hoang take the very best cuts from Texas farms -- including Black Hill Meats and 44 Farms -- and turn them upside down. Asiatown spices are rubbed into the brisket to produce a next-level bark, and hot takes on new-school BBQ run from brisket burnt end steam buns and smoked turkey banh mi to Thai green curry boudin.

Bravery Chef Hall

Downtown
Cutting-edge food hall bringing its chefs to the Center Stage
MasterChef season 3 winner Chef Christine Ha (aka the “Blind Cook”) is just one of the culinary aces staging a concept at Downtown’s coolest food hall; in her case, it’s a take on Vietnamese street food called The Blind Goat, where she puts out Hanoi-style chicken pho and crispy pork & shrimp egg rolls. Then there’s Chef Richard Knight (formerly of Feast and Hunky Dory), sending out fork tender corned beef reubens and curry and bangers & mash Blue Plate specials from his contemporary global spot, Atlas Diner. There’s no passport required to get Roman-style pizza al taglio (“by the cut”) and duck egg rigatoni from BOH Pasta & Pizza’s Chef Ben McPherson; or razor-cut hamachi and sake crudo from two Uchi vets, Chef Daniel Lee and Chef Patrick Pham of Kokoro. And if you’re feeling beefy, Felix Florez and Chef Jessica Timmons are absolutely killing the steak game at their wood-burning steakhouse, Cherry Block Craft Butcher. Grab a seat at the chef’s table to watch the show, and finish with cocktails in the hall’s beautiful Secret Garden Bar.

Squable

The Heights
Euro-style dining with scratch-made breads and pastas, and a must-have burger 

Talk about manpower. This popular-since-the-day-it-opened Heights haunt has hometown virtuosos Bobby Heugel (from Anvil) and Justin Yu (from Theodore Rex) behind it, plus powerhouse restaurateur Steve Flippo and chefs Mark Clayton and Drew Gimma in the kitchen. You’ll want a fork and knife (and, like, five napkins) if you want to reserve any semblance of dignity while making your way through the French cheeseburger: a fat, glorious beef patty and gorgeous house-baked pain de mie bun finished with an oozing cascade of raclette cheese and some chopped cornichons. Make sure you dine with a partner, because you’ll also want to order the unexpectedly fantastic grilled bread with marinated mussels and calico beans, the Dutch baby pancake, and whatever scratch-made pasta the kitchen is dishing out. 

Tejas Burger Joint

Tomball
Big, smokey burgers from one of Houston’s best BBQ spots
Smokehouse burgers aren’t just for Wednesday nights anymore: Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue took its cult favorite weeknight special and turned it into an entire restaurant. These thick Angus beef bombs are packed with post oak smokey flavor, and that’s before you pack on essentials like smoked poblanos, thick-cut bacon, bleu cheese butter spread, and a toasty, buttery brioche bun. Seriously juicy flat-top burgers are also in the lineup, as are onion rings, tots, and shakes.

 Rosie Cannonball
Julie Soefer Photography | Rosie Cannonball

Rosie Cannonball

Montrose
New Italian with a farm-fresh focus and wood-burning oven
The team behind Montrose honky-tonk Goodnight Charlie’s introduced its ever-inviting pizza and pasta spot this August. Its Italian (and sometimes Spanish and Portuguese) menu centers around a pizza oven and wood-burning grill, with farm-focused shareables from rigatoni with smoked ricotta and green pepper pesto to wood-grilled hen-of-the-woods mushrooms finished with chiles and preserved lemon and egg yolk emulsion. The pizzas enlist a higher-hydration dough to produce a crispier crust, perfect for a Speck & Chile Oil pie with white sauce, scamorza cheese, and green olives, and speck; or the stracciatella-cheese Smoked Trout Roe number.

One Fifth Houston
Julie Soefer Photography | One Fifth Houston

One Fifth Gulf Coast

Montrose
Game-changing restaurant concept that’ll only be around till July

After successfully changing up the concept at this restaurant annually since 2017 (from One Fifth Steak, to One Fifth Romance, to One Fifth Mediterranean), Chef Chris Shepherd & Co. have hit another homer with 2019’s Gulf Coast iteration. Keeping things a bit closer to home this time, One Fifth Gulf Coast zeroes in on foods from “Texas to Florida, earth to ocean,” offering a bounty of eats that mesh hearth-fired okra and Nola-style BBQ shrimp with slow-roasted cane syrup duck crown and “gas station snacks” -- a bunch of fried stuff that probably don’t include vegetables. There’s also an entire section just for shellfish (raw, cold, roasted, smoked, cured, and fried); a “Baller Ship,” ripe with a chef-calls-it lineup of fresh, fried and seasonal seafood; and for the first time ever, brunch!

Rosalie Italian Soul
Julie Soefer Photography | Rosalie Italian Soul

Rosalie Italian Soul

Downtown
A masterful Top Chef does Italian food justice
Chef Chris Cosentino, known for winning Top Chef Masters, brings his culinary talents to Houston with this inviting, soulful Italian kitchen, located in Downtown’s C. Baldwin Hotel. The inspiration: the chef’s great-grandmother, Rosalie Cosentino, a first-generation Italian immigrant who influenced his entire career. Here, you’ll find classic red-sauce dishes like eggplant parm and made-daily rigatoni with wild boar ragu, as well as pizzas fresh from the oven, plus plates like local vegetable fritto misto, a shareable bistecca Fiorentina, and whole Gulf shrimp fra diavolo.

truth bbq
Robert Jacob Lerma | Truth BBQ

Truth BBQ

Washington
Some of the best BBQ in Texas, and that’s a fact
Brenham’s best BBQ joint made its way to H-town at the beginning of the year, after making some sizable waves when its roadside outpost snagged the #10 spot in Texas Monthly’s roundup of the Top 50 BBQ spots in Texas. Pitmaster Leonard Botello IV already had many fans, and we can safely say he earned himself a bunch more with the move. Now, local barbecue enthusiasts get their fix without the drive to Central Texas, filling up on fatty, 18-hour-smoked brisket and succulent-but-crisp burnt ends, peppery pork ribs, and sides ranging from the ol’ school tater tot casserole to a corn pudding that you absolutely need in your mouth right now.

Ouzo Bay
Kirsten Gilliam | Ouzo Bay

Ouzo Bay

River Oaks District
Real-deal Mediterranean fare fresh from the seas

This lavish slice of Santorini flies its seafood in daily from all over the globe; that means you can get decadent and buttery Hawaiian Kona Kampachi, jumbos prawns sourced straight from Madagascar, and branzino fresh from the Aegean. Dine on ouzo blue mussels, flaming saganaki, and lobster pasta, and at brunch, roasted langostino scrambles and Greek “chilaquiles” with bison short machaca. Rockstar sommelier Evan Turner (known for his work at Helen Greek) has also cherry-picked a big, bold, and beautiful collection of wines -- housed right in a gorgeous floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed wine room -- to pair alongside your meal.

loch bar assorted food
Courtesy of Loch Bar

Loch Bar

River Oaks District
High-end seafood tavern with one of the biggest raw displays in town

Part seafood tavern, part whiskey-fueled speakeasy, this sibling establishment to Ouzo Bay offers reimagined tavern fare in a rich, ship-wrecked setting. Not only does it house one of the choicest whiskey selections in the city (and live music seven nights a week), but it also features one of Houston’s largest raw bars, brimming with lobster displays and ice towers of oysters and caviar. Dig into beer mussels and boardwalk fries, Maine lobster rolls, and Viet-Cajun peel-and-eat shrimp.

Toukei

Chinatown
Asiatown’s buzzy new izakaya experience

The King of Asiatown Mike Tran (the guy behind Tiger Den, Mein, Ishin Udon & more) has done it again; this time, with a sterling Japanese izakaya complete with a dark, sexy interior, open kitchen, and custom wood-burning grill. Gather your crew and share some otsumami (snacks) and yakitori (skewers) -- things like candied pork belly, crispy chicken skin, tempura squid, razor-cut hamachi, and spam katsu. You’ll also want to avail yourselves of the solid stable of Japanese whiskies and Scotch, as well as the Japanese-style highballs on tap.

Guard and Grace
Courtesy of Guard and Grace

Guard and Grace

Downtown
Powerhouse steak concept, home of the $400 fajitas
Spread through two stories in Downtown’s landmark Allen Center, Chef Troy Guard showcases his vision of a modern steakhouse, pairing certified Angus and local Wagyu beef with East Asian, Hawaiian, and Latin American influences. The Millionaire Fajitas -- in which 24 ounces of 24kt-gold-leaf-topped black wagyu ribeye arrive beside gold flake tortillas -- aren’t the only showboaty menu item at this brand new Denver import, but they are the most extravagantly priced. If you’re not willing to drop the money on those fajitas, you can also dine on fire-roasted grand seafood towers, filet flights and prime axe-handle tomahawks, and sides ranging from crab béarnaise gnocchi to black truffle mac & cheese.

pacha
Denny Culbert | Pacha

Politan Row

Rice Village
Modern food hall with nine worldly, chef-driven concepts

This globally-minded food hall hits all the sweet spots, with a curated roster of local chefs whose styles range from Peruvian and Japanese fusion to progressive Mexican, Caribbean, and Indonesian. Dig into pork belly bao and Korean queso at Phillip Kim’s cult-favorite concept, Breaking Bao; see Pacha chef Masaru Fukuda marry Japanese and Peruvian flavors via braised pulpo and spicy tuna maki; visit Victoria Elizondo at Cochinita & Co. to get a taste her irresistible tacos and ceviches; experience Evelyn Garcia’s fresh take on Thai at Kin; go for jerk wings and island-style shrimp by Keisha Griggs at Ate Kitchen; venture into plant-based eats from Amanda Altman and Nais Sanchez at Nice Sprout; try Rafik Abohattab’s real-deal Egyptian dips, wraps, and platters at Torshi; and treat yourself to Susu Kopi and Boba’s Indonesian-inspired soft-serve, from sisters Niken and Ecky Prabanto. Top it all off with spirits and cocktail classics at Bar Politan, and then let the ensuing food coma wash over you.

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston-based writer who knows exactly where she’s eating for the next 365 days. Follow her journeys on IG @brookiefafa or on Twitter @brookeviggiano.